The New Softies
Posted March 14, 2018 3:26 p.m. EDT
When Virgil Abloh, the creative director of Off-White (and longtime collaborator with Kanye West), decided to introduce his first perfume, he had only one request: He wanted it to smell like nothing.
Well, almost nothing. Abloh envisioned a fragrance so delicate that it would exist only in the background, a scent so hushed and unassuming that it was barely detectable to the human nose. He delivered this invisible vision to Ben Gorham, who runs the fragrance house Byredo, and together they produced a scent called Elevator Music.
Abloh is not the first person to dream up a perfume so minimal as to be nearly odorless. In 2006, German perfumer Geza Schoen introduced the minimalist fragrance Escentric Molecule 01 as a cheeky rebuke to the excesses of the fragrance world. This “antiperfume” contained only synthetic materials, including an overdose of the woody, barely-there aromachemical Iso E Super. With Molecule 01, Schoen made consumers an irresistible promise: This stuff is like magical, invisible ink — it will amplify, rather than overwhelm, your natural pheromones.
Fans of the scent began to boast that while they could not smell it on themselves, everyone around them was drawn in like a moth. Almost overnight, the perfume designed to troll the industry became an industry monster. To this day, it is one of the top-selling niche fragrances of all time.
It is little surprise, then, that the pellucid perfume trend is now back, but with a youthful twist. We are living in the Instagram era of beauty influencers, when glamour is more about optimization than opulence. In the Molecule 01 tradition, a new crop of perfumes have popped up with low nasal impact but high atmospheric allure.
The makers of these new scents, which I have taken to calling “the New Softies,” are betting that millennials (and the Gen Z-ers slinking up behind them) are averse to pouring on a prepackaged personality. Instead, they simply want a concoction to help them smell like their glorious, unique selves, only better. (This is the olfactory equivalent of no-makeup makeup, in which people spend hundreds of hours, and dollars, to look effortless.)
Perfume, for decades, was all about tangible effort. If you went through the trouble of spraying on a shellac of sweetness, you wanted people to notice, to inhale deeply during a hug and ask after your elixir. Now the dream question to be asked is: Why do you smell so good? Is it new soap?
The New Softies allow consumers to cover their tracks. You may have spent a mint to smell vaguely fresh and clean, but no one has to know. These new scents, heavy on synthetic formulations, are created to melt into the skin and evaporate in intimate puffs. They are perfume imagined as a deceptively expensive white T-shirt that drapes in all the right places.
Off-White x Byredo, Elevator Music
The first perfume from Virgil Abloh and Ben Gorham will be introduced at Barneys New York on May 17. The see-through scent contains soft notes of violet, bamboo and musk but is so subtle that it nearly disappears on wrist contact.
“We came up with the concept of elevator music because we both grew up in the ‘90s,” Gorham said, speaking by phone while traveling in Dubai. “Background music had such a negative connotation then, but it was something we could relate to.” Think of the fragrance ($275 for 100 milliliters) as more of a backdrop to your life than as something that stands by itself. It is nondescript on purpose. “The idea,” Gorham said, “is that its wearer is noticed, not the perfume.”
The Glossier aesthetic is all about a glowing bare face and a youthful nonchalance, so it makes sense that the company’s first fragrance is a transparent mist of girlish iris and a warm aromachemical called Ambrette that makes the skin smell milky. The perfumer Frank Voelkl (the man behind the cult hit scent Santal 33), who created You with Dora Baghriche, said that he engineered the scent ($50 for 50 milliliters) as “simplistic but singular. What we are seeing with millennials is they like scent to be personal, not like the big florals.”
Voelkl said that for young consumers, “perfumey” was a dirty word. They want to smell “less complex, and more relatable.”
Proenza Schouler, Arizona
The first foray into fragrance from the dynamic design duo Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, this brand-new bubble-gum-pink liquid is meant to stir the nomadic soul with a light glaze of cactus flower and a velvety undergirding of white musk. The scent ($100 for 50 milliliters) also relies heavily on cashmeran, a New Softie staple ingredient that smells like a fine pashmina and lands on the skin like goose feathers.
Comme des Garçons, Concrete
Concrete, a subdued outing for Comme des Garçons, is meant to evoke a city street after it rains. It does this with just one note: an essence of sandalwood, twisted and kneaded until it smells like Silly Putty. This Softie ($165 for 80 milliliters) is the strangest of the bunch, in that it sits close to the body but also smells eerily alien; a metallic tang keeps it interesting.
Another gossamer creation from Voelkl, Holy_Wood is a showcase for an aromachemical called Clearwood, which the fragrance lab Firmenich calls “the 21st century’s answer to patchouli.” What it really smells like is the inside of a day spa sauna: immaculate, meditative, vaporous ($195 for 100 milliliters).
Goest Perfumes, Dauphine
Jacqueline Steele, the creator of Goest, based Dauphine, an ethereal perfume that smells like almond macarons, on Marie Antoinette’s quiet moments at the palace between gaudy costume balls. “The concept is extreme cleanliness when cleanliness was coveted; pastries with white sugar when white sugar was an almost abstract luxury object,” Steele said. The scent ($140 for 60 milliliters) is knowingly innocuous, she said. “Millennials want to show off a sort of luxuriant, well-considered, ‘well-cared-for-ness’ that doesn’t traffic much in glamour, but still clearly messages wealth and taste.”